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Time stands still for those who wait

Posted by Marcia Dick  January 15, 2010 11:29 AM

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John Tlumacki/Globe staff

Berlande Edouard of Medford broke into tears at a meeting of the Haitian Coalition of Somerville when another attendee talked about losing family members in the Haiti earthquake.

Thursday afternoon, the Haitian Coalition's office in West Somerville has all the signs of a vigil. Picked-over plate of sandwiches. A pot of coffee, two-thirds empty. A box of donuts from Dunks. CNNLive on the computer screen. And people, who gather at the epicenter of help.

Slender college students file by with tall boots and Blackberries. Edwich Michel of Randolph, 43, off early from his social work job, strides in. Coalition director Franklin Dalembert stands in the middle of the small swarm. In this small office, on the ground floor of a cinder-block housing development. "Most of the time it's 1, 2, 3 people but since yesterday it's been - hello?" He answers his ringing cellphone.

People keep asking if he has information. But Dalembert knows only what the TV tells him. The State Department hotline is "not all that useful." Restored Haitian land lines ring in buildings no one can enter.

The college students go downstairs to strategize for Friday evening's community meeting. Agee Alcindor of Everett, 42, stays right there, dressed sharply in a leather jacket and gray fedora. He's driving a taxi right now, he answers, uncomfortably, in response to a question.

The room quiets down. Two heavy-set men sit silently. The lone woman, somewhat older, sits in front of the computer and switches it to RDI, Canadian French-language news. A trilby hat migrates from the floor to a chair to the windowsill.

Alcindor says in a sigh, "E la la la la, Haiti."

Somerville has about 7,500 Haitians. Dalembert, in button-down shirt and wool cap, spent the morning with the mayor, getting support for the coalition's plans to send a delegation of health care providers to Haiti. He and other local Haitians will accompany the team, with logistics organized through a few Haitian cops who happened to be north on vacation. The college students are going to hold medicine drives. He's going to reach out to other mayors north of the Charles.

But for now, Dalembert is sitting with the others, among the Census buttons and Krey˜l-language health flyers, talking.

"Haiti is going to need a lot of people from the diaspora," Alcindor says.

"I never believed that the international community can really rebuild Haiti and I still do not believe that," says Dalembert, sounding as though he's countering even as he agrees. He's been in Somerville 22 years. "It's up to us Haitians to unite."

A woman pops her head in looking for Christophe. Someone turns up the volume on the French TV.

Michel laughs, a little. The 1 percent of people who control the country - "Do we believe that these people are gone?" he asks.

Alcindor knows the problem. "We need leadership," he says.

Michel: "We've been saying this forever!"

Dalembert jumps in. "Ever since independence we have had - " he picks up the office phone. "Haitian Coalition." He takes the phone to the group in the basement.

The unchanging RDI B-roll again: a line of aid workers passing bundles, a school building window, a blue tarp. A withered-looking man with a Southeast Asian name is missing. In Alcindor's hands, an empty water bottle is crushed around its middle.

Dalembert returns and pulls a chair in close. "Education," he says. "They're not there for the people! It's the corruption!" He leans forward, pointing and trembling. "When I was a child, if my father had not had the money to pay for a private education for me I would have been in the street."

The Haitian bourgeoisie, Aristide's graduate degrees, Rush Limbaugh, the voices rock off the walls:

"Wait wait wait wait wait" says Dalembert.

"Stop stop stop stop my friend!" says Alcindor. A man gets up and hands him a fresh bottle of water.

Michel turns away. "I had to take a little bit of a mental health break" that day, he tells a reporter. "This is somewhat like therapy for me." His roommate had just gotten a call that his sister and a couple of her children had passed. They had all seen each other in Boston just the week before.

His phone rings. He goes into an inner room and gently shuts the door.

Abruptly, the lone woman speaks. "For me, I think take a bulldozer, wreck everything, and start again." Then she turns back to the blue tarp and the man with the Asian name.

Dalembert's voice crescendos as if he's on the stump. "This is the time for us to unite. This is the time for us to come up with something to save the country." This time, he holds off on answering the phone until he completes his sentence.

For no reason, all turn to the television. A silence falls. They watch five minutes of the newscast: Canadian aid organized, a woman waiting in a Canadian airport in tears. The Asian man has been found.

Alcindor takes a sharp breath. He says, almost conversationally, "I'm waiting to hear 'Your brother is dead. Your nephews are dead.' That's my expectation."

Social worker Michel shakes his head. "It's a hard thing to wait for," he says.

"Today one person called me and said I'm alive. I cried," Alcindor says. But even if the airports weren't closed, "if you're going to Haiti now, what are you going to do?"

"I would go now. I'm telling you," Dalembert says. Later, the mayor will announce that the city can't lend its support to medicine drives or medical trips: So many people want to help that municipalities have to go through FEMA. The mayor will organize a fund for donations instead.

The sky is growing dark. Alcindor stands up. "I have to go," he says. It's rush hour.

The Haitian Coalition hosts a community meeting Friday, Jan. 15 at 6 p.m. at the Healey School, 5 Meacham St., Somerville to discuss its relief efforts. The City of Somerville holds a vigil Monday, Jan. 18 at the high school auditorium at 7 p.m.

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